• 03.03.11

Quantum Physicists “Depressed” and “Isolated,” Says Acclaimed Quantum Physicist


 Yesterday Aaron O’Connell stunned TED audiences with his
description of an experiment three years in the making that for the first time
showed quantum delocalization taking place at the level of a physical, visible
object. In other words, for his PhD thesis, he got a very small piece of aluminum to be in two
places at once. 


He did this by first building the world’s most sensitive motion
detector under John Martinis, who does research into quantum computing at UC
Santa Barbara. (His other thesis advisor was theoretical physicist Andrew Cleland). It was capable of detecting motion at the scale of a single
nucleus of an atom. Then he built a device that resembles a band pass filter
found in every cell phone. It’s like a tiny diving board, suspended at one end
so it can easily vibrate, made out of two thin sheets of aluminum surrounding a
specially grown crystal of aluminum nitride. “Aluminum is one of the best
superconductors we know,” O’Connell told Fast
“If you want to make a superconductor you can put a Pepsi can in a
refrigerator—except the refrigerator we built cools things down to just above
absolute zero.”


Once the special device was assembled, they performed the
experiment millions of times, each time lasting just a fraction of a second. In
conditions of dark, vacuum, and extremely cold temperatures, they were able to
show that the tiny object both vibrated and did not vibrate at the same time. A
quantum effect in the real world.


When I caught up with the young, spiky-haired O’Connell I
congratulated him on this achievement, but he surprised me by sounding pretty
dejected. “My nametag says ‘freelance,’” he pointed out. “That’s what you say
when you’re unemployed.” O’Connell revealed that he’s considering starting a
tech company, maybe to build iPhone apps. “I just want to be around people,” he
said, a funny statement for someone who had just shared his discovery with a
potential audience of millions. “If you go into any physics lab everybody is
depressed and feels isolated. We don’t get any feedback that anybody cares
about what we’re doing.”



About the author

She’s the author of Generation Debt (Riverhead, 2006) and DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, (Chelsea Green, 2010). Her next book, The Test, about standardized testing, will be published by Public Affairs in 2015.